Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The perfect nudge: Freedom to Nudge yourself

By Pelle Guldborg Hansen & Andreas Maaløe Jespersen

We all know it, but we can't help it - or can we? 
We all have that tendency to procrastinate, junk around for news, or try to multi-task. All of these behaviors stand in our way of productivity, yet it seems we just can't help it.

The Internet has only helped to make the possibility of indulging in these behaviors even worse. YouTube, Facebook, online news, Zite,... well, even the blog you're reading right now, may be the only thing that stands between you and your next promotion (or just some of that precious quality time with your family).

But now there is hope. Freedom is the productivity application that offers you the perfect $10 nudge to free yourself from online distractions - at least for a while.

Up until now, only a perfectly rational agent could prevent himself from getting distracted by online temptations. Freedom lets you aspire to your rational ideals by providing you with a self-commitment strategy for cutting off the internet. You choose for how long, press OK - and then it is only by rebooting your device that it is possible to bypass your self-commitment to concentrate.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A nudge to reduce injuries at work

By Pelle Guldborg Hansen & Andreas Maaløe Jespersen

"It's just easier to do it yourself, rather than asking and then waiting for somebody to come and help." We all know this way of reasoning. However, it may easily become a huge problem and a big expense at work, if a helping hand is what ultimately stands between another day at work and a long term working injury.

This is especially true if you are working in a team, but fail to call upon a helping hand when handling heavy objects and other physically taxing working tasks. In such situations, 'just doing it yourself' may lead to the repetition of unhealthy movements or just that one wrong lift that your back will regret for months to come.

It is not just that many workplaces are abundant with these kinds of hidden-risk tasks - i.e. tasks where the individual worker may obviously succeed in performing the task on her own, but a collective effort relieves long term, yet often, invisible consequences or seriously reduce the invisible risk of a sudden injury. It also seems reasonable to suspect that the problem may be reinforced by several external factors, such as norms of masculinity or self-reliance, or if the working team suffers from a low level of social capital.

So how do we deal with hidden-risk tasks?
One obvious "solution" is dealing with the problem by ignoring it and thereby failing to end up in the important conversation were we realize the hidden nature of the problem as a group or team. If this is the case, the hidden-risk problem is not only maintained in our working-environment. Its consequences may also persist to damage the team's social capital by increasing the frequency of replacements, drain the budget with temporaries, and causing the team to work faster, harder and at higher risk when being low on staff.

Even when we do succeed in establishing a mutual recognition of hidden-risk problems, my experience is that we often fail to take appropriate measures to deal with them. We approach problems of hidden-risk by targeting our social-norms or a team's social capital in the hope that the effect will then spill-over in the right situation.

At its worst this means talking about what we "ought to do" or "ought to have done" and possibly ending up playing the blame game. At its best it means building up the team's social capital and then crossing fingers hoping that this will kick in at just the right moment - i.e. when you need that helping hand, although you could have done it by yourself.

A nudge to reduce injuries at work
However, the other day when giving a talk at OKÆ, Pelle was presented with a good example of how to use nudging to deal with the problem of hidden-risk. In the municipality's big central kitchen OKÆ Foodservice a poster displays how many days have passed since the last working injury occurred. In fact, we've since then been told that this nudge has been used at factories since the '50ties! (please comment if you know anything about this).

This poster neither changes the options available to the staff, nor the structure of incentives embedded in their working environment. Thus, it qualifies as a nudge. Yet, I think it very likely that it may help reduce work injuries related to hidden-risk problems.

For one, as you can see, the chosen design requires the poster to be updated every day with a marker. Thus it functions as a continuous reminder. Everyday, at least one person has to think about the risk of injuries at work.

Second, it may function as a "catcher". That is, on the same line as the Fly in the Urinal and calorie labels on menus it may catch the attention of those working in a hidden-risk environment (though we think the there's some space for improving the chosen design).

Third, the poster re-frames the hidden-risk problems likely to cause injuries at work, so that from being a theme of individual consideration, responsibility and consequence, hidden-risk problems in the working environment become a collective consideration, responsibility and problem. Ideally this means that you will no longer need to ask for that helping hand, when you could do it on your own. Instead others will be on the look-out to prevent those hidden-risks from materializing. That is, it may help to promote ground-floor team-work as a means to avoid situations of risk by creating a new frame of reference that emphasizes the collective aspect of the possible consequences and creating a healthy competition where the team competes against itself.

A word of caution
That said, a word of caution is also needed. The poster-nudge is a social nudge and as such it presents the usual dangers of invoking social dynamics as part of behavioral interventions.

While the poster may help avoid hidden-risk problems at work, it may also lead to some negative and unintended effects. Might workers for instance come to hide their work-injuries from co-workers and employers in order not to ruin the record?

Of course, this is one of those instances where the role of social capital becomes important. Yet, social capital may even worsen such unintended effects, if nudging is combined with other measures.

Why? Injuries will always happen, but just as hidden-risks, they may not be observable. The poster-system doesn't allow for that "margin of error" to save "the record". This means that if e.g. one tries to combine this nudge with a premium for achieving a particular record - e.g. 100 days - one may ultimately not only reinforce the unintended effect by having workers hide their injuries to save "the record". They will also have a strong reason to hide the injury in order to save the team's premium - a reason that may indeed be conjectured to be reinforced by higher levels of social capital within the team.

Unfortunately, the premium combination has been chosen at Foodservice - it's just so natural for us to reward behavior, even when we only need a nudge.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bulletin News: When you need a nudge in kindergarten

by Pelle Guldborg Hansen

The other day something happened in my son's kindergarten. Well, actually not in his kindergarten, since he's a first grader in school now. But something happened in the Danish version of the after-school day-care that my son attends - and that something has been happening ever since he started in kindergarten.

So what happened?
Every now and then - that is, two or three times a year - all parents are asked to participate in a grand meeting at their kids' kindergarten, school or after-school day-care. However, since none of these institutions can force, threaten, punish or reward you for attending these meetings they have no other choice than to nudge the parents, and then trust that they will take out their time and show up.

So yesterday, the same thing as always happened: only a tiny fraction of the parents turned up. That is, around 5 out of the approximately 150 parents to approx. 75 kids (sorry, modern family structures makes the exact numbers very difficult to calculate). Unfortunately, besides the fact that this was the first time ever I missed out, this is not a unique unfolding of events. Of all the parents' meeting that I've attended during the years, only the very first meeting or meetings regarding very special events have been attended by more than a tiny fraction.

So who's to blame?
What happens next is just as usual: the blame game. "Why isn't the other parents showing up?" everyone present ask.

First come the usual suspects: "they don't know how important these meetings are", and "they are too lazy and uninvolved" - sometimes someone even suggests the game-theoretic one: "if everyone else shows up, they reason they don't have to, and if everyone else stay at home, they reason that so can they!"

These are all plausible explanation. The only problem is that they all share one suspicious feature: they make the people present and who are now giving their explanations look like pure saints: they know how important these meeting are, they are not lazy and uninvolved, and they do not reason in the self-interested way predicted by classical game theory.

Only then someone suggests the shocking truth: "people might just have missed the information..."

The morality of the bulletin board 
However, while this is usually true, the truth is not always looked upon with sympathy: "It was announced on the bulletin board." someone states with a clear and cold voice.

"Well, they might have missed it anyway. After all, I even forget to check it sometimes." you might consider answering.

But here's my advice: don't. Because the response you'll get is likely to be this: "It was announced on the bulletin board, and everyone knows that this is where we announce important news, so they ought to know that they ought to look at it." and since every parent clearly knows that this is true, it is quite hard to argue against it. Finally, the following presupposition is sometimes made explicit: "And if people don't, that's clearly because they don't find our work at this institution sufficiently important!"

The real explanation
The problem is just that we do not always do what we - upon reflection - know we ought to do. Just as you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is", you cannot derive an "is" from an "ought". We don't always act according to the ideals we aspire to.

Why? Well, in the above case the explanation is that our attention usually not focused on the occasional and rare announcements - even if it's nailed to the bulletin board. It's not that we don't care or don't respect the work that the employees put into their job. It's just the fact that the important announcements are so rare and so much else is going on, that we don't focus on the bulletin board.

The real problem
So why is this important? Well, the real problem in all of these cases is that as long as we don't focus on the real explanations when we discuss and devise solutions, we often end up burning up our institutions' hard earned social capital. In other words, the morality of the bulletin board makes people draw ill-conceived distinctions that feed suspicions and dissatisfaction.

The real question
This is what makes the above situation a clear candidate for a nudge. You're not allowed to force, make threats, or issue fines. So how would you go about ensuring that almost all parents turn up the next time?  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

2nd meeting in the Danish Nudging Network

By Pelle Guldborg Hansen & Andreas Maaløe Jespersen

September 21 is approaching fast - the date that ought to be in your calendar if you're considering having your institution or organization incorporate nudging in its approach to behavioral change.  

Since our first meeting in the Danish nudging network in January 2011, interest as well as members in the network have been rising fast - as well as the number of talks that Andreas and I have been giving throughout Denmark.

Thus, we couldn't have been happier, when Richard Thaler said he would come to Denmark October 21 to help us raise awareness about the potentials that the Nudge approach offers to decision and policy makers.

So what's so special about September 21?
Well, since we know that a lot of you would like to know a bit more about nudging and prepare yourself properly for Prof. Thaler's visit, we've decided - in the true spirit of the nudging paradigm - to have the 2nd meeting of the nudging network EXACTLY one month prior to October 21. That should be easy to remember!

At the meeting new as well as old members will be introduced to the basic ideas behind the nudge paradigm, some of the major societal challenges that nudging may offer a new approach to engage with, as well as some lessons from the recent debate on nudging in the UK.

You may find the programme on page 3 of the Network's most recent newsletter HERE.

The meeting will be held at 

Metropolitan City University in Copenhagen
Pustervigvej 8, 2. sal, 
1126 Copenhagen

You may sign up by writing an e-mail to Andreas Maaløe Jespersen: anmaje@ruc.dk.

But do also remember to register for the Public Lecture by Richard Thaler October 21 HERE.

Also - please remember to share this post with interested collegaues and friends! 

The meeting is organized in collaboration by:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

iNudgeyou: The piano stairs – short run fun and not a nudge!

iNudgeyou: The piano stairs – short run fun and not a nudge!: By Pelle Guldborg Hansen Have you ever heard about the piano stairs made famous by FunTheory ? Sure, you have. At least, when I give ...

The piano stairs – short run fun and not a nudge!

By Pelle Guldborg Hansen

Have you ever heard about the piano stairs made famous by FunTheory? Sure, you have.

At least, when I give talks on the Nudge doctrine everybody seems to know the piano stairs. The YouTube video has apparently spread like a wildfire throughout the world. Watched by millions of tired office workers in search of 15 seconds of fun while tied to their desks; spread by collegial nudges penetrating the walls of the cubicles - “Hey take a look at this!”

But does it really work? And what about the claim that seems to be almost as widespread as the video: the belief amongst many public decision-maker practitioners that Nudge and FunTheory are basically the same – is that claim true?

Is it a nudge?
Let’s begin with the latter question – are the piano stairs a nudge?

Now, just to emphasize: to my knowledge Fun Theory hasn’t claimed to be part of the nudge doctrine. Instead the programmatic declaration about Fun Theory on FunTheory.com says:
"This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better."
This makes Fun Theory both sympathetic and novel. But it doesn’t make it a nudge. Still, many people believes so, and I’ve even had a few people from public policy making cancel presentations when they learn that nudging isn’t fun – at least, not by definition.

Instead, what do follow by definition is that FunTheory isn’t nudging. Now, as described in an earlier entry something is not a nudge if it works by changing incentives – not only in terms of economic, but also social, time, etc. One test of whether a nudge works independently of incentives is to consider whether an un-boundedly rational agent would change his choice or behavior given the intervention. If he would, it’s not a nudge.

However, it seems obvious that even an un-boundedly rational agent would change his behavior when faced with a fun-intervention as the piano-staircase. Making things fun is a way of changing the incentives and no one says – not even neo-classical economics – that rational agents are not allowed to have fun. Thus, it may be concluded that the piano staircase isn’t a nudge.

Still, the widespread belief that the piano staircase is nudging shouldn’t be attributed to ignorance. The mistake most likely originates with the original, but too wide definition of a nudge given by Thaler and Sunstein themselves in Nudge (see Thaler & Sunstein 2008:6) – a definition that only bars influencing behavior with economic incentives. However, Hausman and Welch have argued convincingly in Debate: To nudge or not to nudge (2010) that a viable definition has to bar other non-economic incentives as well.

But does it work?
Well, that’s obviously an empirical question. But two skeptical observations (at least!) may be noted about this even before you walk off to your local metro-station to put up the stairs.

First: what is your evidence? If you look at the piano staircase video it turns out that the evidence is really bad. How many people were observed? How were the days for observation chosen? "66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator" doesn't really tell you much. These are just some of the standard questions you would ask as a social scientist before taking something like piano staircase seriously.

Second: is the intervention of the piano staircase sustainable? That is, if it really does change behavior (as I think it does), then does it change behavior for more than a day or two? And is the effect as intended?

Again that’s an empirical question. But again it may pay off to do some thinking before bothering to set up a test. So think of this:

It’s Monday morning and you’re on your way to work. Arriving at the metro station you see the stairs. That seem like great fun and you decide to try them out. You do this for a couple of days, but Thursday morning you decide to take the escalator. The piano stairs doesn’t seem that fun anymore. That’s fine. This only seems to affect you, and not new comers – or does it?

Friday morning you start to grow increasingly annoyed about the stairs. Tourists and kids are playing on them and making a lot of unwelcome noise. You would really prefer that they stopped. Monday you no longer prefer them to stop – you prefer that they went to hell; and so does every other regular traveler. You hate the piano stairs and together with everyone else you start to send clear signals to those thinking about using the stairs that they should really think twice. It becomes common knowledge to everyone travelling and who’s not a tourist that only an idiot would take the stairs. Ultimately, even those who preferred the stairs to begin with, end up taking the escalator!

So fun may really change behavior – and in the case of the piano stairs, it seems obvious that it may even change it to the worse.

Hausman, D.M., & Welch, B., (2010) Debate: To Nudge or Not to Nudge. The Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 18., 1, 123-136, (November 2009), 2010.

Thaler, R.H., & Sunstein, C.R., (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, May 2008.